Istria history




The Istrian peninsula

Istria (Croatian, Slovene: Istra; Italian: Istria; Istriot: Eîstria; German: Istrien; Greek: IstriaἸστρία), formerly Histria (Latin), is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. The peninsula is located at the head of the Adriatic between the Gulf of Trieste and the Bay of Kvarner. It is shared by three countries: Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.



    • 1 Geography


    • 2 History 
        • 2.1 Early history


        • 2.2 Venetian Republic and the Holy Roman Empire


        • 2.3 Austrian Empire (1797-1805)


        • 2.4 Italian Kingdom (Napoleon Empire) 1805-1813


        • 2.5 Austrian Empire (1814-1918)


        • 2.6 Kingdom of Italy 1918-1945


        • 2.7 SFR Yugoslavia 1945-1991


      • 2.8 After the breakup of Yugoslavia – after 1991


    • 3 Demographic history 
      • 3.1 Ethnicity


  • 4 Gallery


The geographical features of Istria include Učka mountain – Monte Maggiore which is the highest point in the Ćićarija – Cicciaria mountain range, the rivers Dragonja, Mirna – Quieto, Pazinčica and Raša – Arsia, and the Lim bay. Istria lies in three countries: Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. The largest portion (89%) “Croatian Istria” (Hrvatska Istra), is further divided into two counties. The largest portion is Istria county in western Croatia. Important towns in Istria county include Pula – Pola, Poreč – Parenzo, Rovinj – Rovigno, Pazin – Pisino (Mitterburg), Labin – Albona (lies in Liburnia), Umag, Motovun – Montona, Buzet – Pinguente and Buje – Buie, and the smaller towns of Višnjan, Roč – Rozzo, and Hum – Colmo. A small slice in the north, including the coastal towns of Izola, Piran, Portorož and Koper, and the muinicipality of Hrpelje-Kozina, lies in Slovenia and is commonly known as Austrian Littoral (Slovenska Istra), while a tiny region in Italy consisting of the comunes of Muggia and San Dorligo della Valle belongs to Italy. The ancient region of Histria extended to a much wider area, including also the Kras – Carso plateau, the south-western portions of modern Inner Carniola, and the modern Italian Province of Trieste, but not the Liburnian coast which was already part of Illyricum.


Early history

The name is derived from the Illyrian tribe of the Histri, which Strabo refers to as living in the region. The Histri are classified in some sources as a “Venetic” Illyrian tribe, with certain linguistic differences from other Illyrians[1]. The Romans described the Histri as a fierce tribe of pirates, protected by the difficult navigation of their rocky coasts. It took two military campaigns for the Romans to finally subdue them in 177 BCE. The region was then called together with the Venetian part the X. Roman Region of “Venetia et Histria”. Per ancient definition the north-eastern border of Italy. Dante Alighieri refers to it as well, the eastern border of Italy per ancient definition is the river Arsia-Rasa. The eastern side of this river was called Liburnia, another ancient tribe who lived also in the Italian region Marche around Ancona, and not part of Histria. Today Liburnia is included into Istria. On the northern side Histria went much further north and included the Italian city Trieste and the region Venezia-Julia. Today Trieste and Venezia-Julia are not included into Istria for political reasons.

Some scholars speculate that the names Histri and Istria are related to the Latin name Hister, or Danube. Ancient folktales reported—inaccurately—that the Danube split in two or “bifurcated” and came to the sea near Trieste as well as at the Black Sea. The story of the “Bifurcation of the Danube” is part of the Argonaut legend. There is also a suspected link (but no historical documentation is available) to the commune of Istria in Constanţa, Romania.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the region was pillaged by the Goths, the Eastern Roman Empire, and Avars, annexed to the Lombards Kingdom in 751, annexed to the Frankish kingdom by Pippin III in 789, and then successively controlled by the dukes of Carinthia, Meran, Bavaria and by the patriarch of Aquileia, before it became the territory of the Republic of Venice in 1267.

Venetian Republic and the Holy Roman Empire

Austrian Littoral in 1897

The coastal areas and cities of Istria came under Venetian Influence in the IX century, It became definitely the territory of the Republic of Venice in 1267. The Inner Istrian part around Mitterburg (Pazin), was held for centuries by the Holy Roman Empire (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation).

Austrian Empire (1797-1805)

Venetian rule left a strong mark on the region, one that can still be seen today. The Inner Istrian part around Mitterburg, was held for centuries by the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The venetian part of the peninsula passed to it in 1797 with the Treaty of Campo Formio.

Italian Kingdom (Napoleon Empire) 1805-1813

The Holy Roman Empire ended with the period of Napoleonic rule from 1805 to 1813 when Istria became part of the Italian Kingdom and of the Illyrian provinces of the Napoleonic Empire.

Austrian Empire (1814-1918)

After this short period the newly established Austrian Empire ruled Istria as the so called “Küstenland” which included the city of Trieste and Gorizia in Friuli until 1918. At that time the borders of Istria included a part of what is now Italian Venezia-Giulia and parts of modern-day Slovenia and Croatia, but not the city of Trieste. Today, Istria’s borders are defined differently.

Kingdom of Italy 1918-1945

Istria under Italian rule (1918-1945). Fascism took over in Italy in 1922, four years after Istria was annexed.

After World War I and the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, Istria was given to Italy. After the advent of Fascism, the portions of the Istrian population that were Morlaks, Croatian and Slovene were exposed to a policy of forced italianization and cultural suppression. They lost their right to education and religious practice in their maternal languages [2]. The organization TIGR, regarded as the first armed antifascist resistance group in Europe, was founded in 1927 and soon penetrated into Slovene and Croatian-speaking parts of Istria.

SFR Yugoslavia 1945-1991

After the end of World War II, Istria was included into Yugoslavia, except for a small part in the northwest corner that formed Zone B of the provisionally independent Free Territory of Trieste (Trst); Zone B was under Yugoslav administration and after the de facto dissolution of the Free Territory in 1954 it was also incorporated into Yugoslavia. Only the small town of Muggia (Milje), near Trieste, being part of Zone A remained with Italy.

The events of that period are visible in Pula. The city had an Italian majority, and is located on the southernmost tip of the Istrian peninsula. Between December 1946 and September 1947, a large proportion of the city’s inhabitants emigrated to Italy. Most of them left in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty on February 10, 1947, which granted Pula to Yugoslavia. After 1954, the border between the Slovenia and Croatia ran along along the river Dragonja. According to the Croatian historiographer Stjepan Srkulj,[3] this is the first time in Croatian history that Istria has been under Croatian jurisdiction.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia – after 1991

The division of Istria between Croatia and Slovenia runs on the former republic borders, which were not precisely defined in the former Yugoslavia. Various bones of contention remain unresolved between the two countries regarding the precise line of the border [4]. It became an international boundary with the independence of both countries from Yugoslavia in 1991. Since Croatia’s first multi-party elections in 1990, the regional party Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS-DDI, Istarski demokratski sabor or Dieta democratica istriana) has consistently received a majority of the vote and maintained through 1990s a position often contrary to the government in Zagreb, led by then nationalistic party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ, Hrvatska demokratska zajednica) with regards to decentralization in Croatia and certain regional autonomy. However, that changed in 2000, when IDS formed with five other parties left-centre coalition government, led by Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP, Socijaldemokratska Partija Hrvatske). After reformed HDZ won Croatian parliamentary elections in late 2003 and formed minority government, IDS has been cooperating with state government on many projects, both local (in Istria County) and national. Since Slovenia’s accession to the European Union and the Schengen area, customs and immigration checks have been abolished at the Italian-Slovenian border.

Demographic history

Italians in Istria in 1910.

Ethnic distribution in Istria in 1910: Italians Croats Slovenes Istro-Romanians

Ethnic map of Croatia’s Istria County in 2001

The region has traditionally been ethnically mixed. Under Austrian rule in the 19th century, it included a large population of Italians, Croats, Slovenes and some Vlachs/Istro-Romanians and Montenegrins; however, official statistics in those times didn’t show those nationalities as they do today.
In 1910, the ethnic and linguistic composition was completely mixed. According to the Austrian census results (Istria included here parts of the Karst and Liburnia which are not really part of Istria and excluded ancient istrian parts like Trieste), out of 404,309 inhabitants in Istria, 168,116 (41.6%) spoke Croatian, 147,416 (36.5%) spoke Italian, 55,365 (13.7%) spoke Slovene, 13,279 (3.3%) spoke German, 882 (0.2%) spoke Romanian, 2,116 (0.5%) spoke other languages and 17,135 (4.2%) were non-citizens, which had not been asked for their language of communication. During the last decades of Habsburg dynasty the coast of Istria profited from the tourism within the Empire. Generally speaking, Italians lived on coast, all the inland cities and northern Istria, while Morlaks, Croats and Slovenes lived in the eastern and southeastern inland parts on the countryside.

In the second half of the 19th century a clash of new ideological movements, Italian irredentism (which claimed Trieste and Istria) and Slovene and Croatian nationalism (developing individual identities in some quarters whilst seeking to unite in a South Slav bid in others), resulted in growing ethnic conflict between Italians one side and Slovenes and Croats in opposition. This was intertwined with the class conflict, as inhabitants of Istrian towns were mostly Italian, whilst Croats or Slovenes largely lived out in the eastern countryside.

There is a long tradition of tolerance between the people who live there, regardless of their nationality, and although many Istrians today are ethnic Croats, a strong regional identity has existed over the years. The Croatian word for the Istrians is Istrani, or Istrijani, the latter being in the local Chakavian dialect. The term Istrani is also used in Slovenia. Today the Italian minority is organized in many towns (see, it consists officially around 45.000 inhabitants, the Istrian county in Croatia is bilingual, as are large parts of Slovenian Istria. Every citizen has the right to speak either Italian or Croatian (Slovene in Slovenian Istria) in public administration or in court. Furthemore, Istria is a supranational European Region that includes Italian, Slovenian and Croatian Istria.


As with many other regions in the former Yugoslavia, common concepts about ethnicity and nationality fail when applied to Istria. Discussions about Istrian ethnicity often use the words “Italian,” “Croatian” and “Slovene” to describe the character of Istrian people. However, these terms are best understood as “national affiliations” that may exist in combination with or independently of linguistic, cultural and historical attributes.

In Istrian contexts, for example, the word “Italian” can just as easily refer to autochthonous speakers of the Venetian language whose antecedents in the region extend before the inception of the Venetian Republic or Istriot language the oldest spoken language in Istria, dated back to the Romans, today spoken in the south west of Istria, but also to a descendant of immigrated during the Benito Mussolini period.[citations needed] It can also refer to Istrian Slavs who adopted the veneer of Italian culture as they moved from rural to urban areas, or from the farms into the bourgeoisie. In fact most of the families in Inner Istria are mixed descendants of Morlaks, Ventian, Friulan, Slavic and Albanian origins.

Similarly, national powers claim Istrian Slavs according to local language, so that speakers of Čakavian and Štokavian dialects of the Croatian language are considered to be Croatians, while speakers of other dialects may be considered to be Slovene. Those Croatian dialect speakers are descendants of the refugees of the Turkish invasion and the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia and Dalmatia from the 16 century. Often they were slavizised Vlachs and Morlachs. The government of the Republic of Venice had settled them down in Inner Istria, devastated by wars and plague. Many villages have the Morlachian name like Katun. Like with all other regions, the local dialects of the Slavic communities are very slightly varied across close distances. The Istrian Slavic and Italian vernaculars had both developed for many generations before being divided as they are today. This meant that Croats/Slovenes on one side and Venetians/other Italians on the other will have yielded towards each other culturally whilst distancing themselves from members of their ethnic groups living farther away. There is still the Romanian community to mention, the Istro-Romanians in the east and north of Istria (Ćićarija) and parts of neighbouring Liburnia (the east coast of the peninsula, called Liburnia, which is not part of Istria but today administratively included).

According to the 2001 Croatian census data for the Istria County, 71.88% of the inhabitants were Croats, 6.92% were Italians, 3.20% were Serbs, 1.49% were Bosnians, and 10.65% didn’t want to state their nationality. Those declaring themselves regionally as Istrians made up 4.3%. Other nationalities had less than 1% each. [5]

The data for Slovenian Istria is not as neatly ordered, but the 2002 Slovenian census indicates that the three Istrian municipalities (Izola, Piran, Koper) had a total of 56,482 Slovenes, 6,426 Croats and 1,840 Italians.[6]

The small town of Peroj has had a unique history which exemplifies the multi-ethnic complexity of the history of the region, as do some towns on both sides of the Cicerija mountains that are still identified with the Istro-Romanian people which the UNESCO Redbook of Endangered Languages calls “the smallest ethnic group in Europe”.